Over the years the Call of Duty series has set the bar for immersive, action-packed, cinematic FPS gaming, and no matter what camp you're from there's no denying the franchise's influence on the industry. When Infinity Ward moved from the classic World War II setting and blazed new ground with Modern Warfare we saw the first obvious split within the world of Call of Duty. The series dropped its historic focus, created a new cast of characters, and began treading on new ground by taking the first-person shooter genre to new locales, and pushing the boundaries of what military games are willing to show. With Modern Warfare 2, the sheer amount of hype has been practically inescapable, with preorders alone setting it up as one of the biggest selling games of all time, the addition of even more multiplayer modes and features, and the game's new Special Operations mode has set Infinity Ward's lastest up as the game to beat this year.
The real question: has it been worth the wait, and can Modern Warfare 2 live up to the precedent set by over half a decade of Call of Duty tradition?
Modern Warfare 2 is by far the least traditional of the series, with the core package broken up into three main pillars of gameplay. Single-player fans have their main campaign, if you're down for more co-op gameplay either locally or via online connection you've got the new Spec Ops mode, and Modern Warfare's groundbreaking multiplayer is back, and truly better than ever. There's an overwhelming amount of content to experience, but with each mode being 100% standalone in nature, you're getting three completely different experiences all in one. That, however, also plays a huge factor into how your final opinion of Modern Warfare 2 as a whole turns out.
First and foremost is the single-player experience. As the anchor of the Call of Duty world, campaign mode is back, and it's intense. You'll instantly get a sense of just how far the improved engine has come when you're thrown into the bustling streets of Rio de Janeiro's favela, the ice-capped mountains of Russia, the dusty roads of Afghanistan, and other unexpected locales. On the visual side of things, Modern Warfare 2 is an obvious step up over Call of Duty 4 and World at War, with a stronger emphasis on complex terrain in the environments, weather effects, destructible objects, and the overall sense of action and chaos that comes with so many visual improvements. This is only complemented further by the increased attention to sound design, with the effects of many returning weapons being re-recorded,even more in-level chatter amongst your allies, and a truly captivating score by Hans Zimmer which builds based on specific in-game moments. Modern Warfare 2 feels like an action movie through and through, with the production values alone dating Infinity Ward's last game, Call of Duty 4, quite a bit.
At the same time, the single-player campaign has its issues. For starters, it's short. I've been playing Call of Duty 4 steadily since its release, and my first completion of the Modern Warfare 2 campaign came in at just under five hours on regular difficulty. Playing through on hardened will add another hour and a half onto that. Modern Warfare 2 is definitely more chaotic this time around – partially due to the new visual effects and upped production values – and with the improved enemy AI and tough scenario design you'll be fighting for every checkpoint. One of the larger visual changes to the game's heads-up display this time around is the blood splatter system. In previous Call of Duty offerings you'd get damaged, the screen would start to shade red, and you'd be required to seek cover before your vision returned to normal. Modern Warfare 2 employs a new system, actually having a thicker blood layer added to up the realism. There's been some discussion on whether the splatter is too distracting, and in my experience with the game it's far from an issue. You'll be able to take more hits on easier difficulty settings, so while a few well-placed shots will drop players on hardened or veteran modes the added splatter is an acceptable trade-off for more overall health
Thankfully many of the glaring issues from last time around have been fixed. You won't find unlimited enemy spawns in areas, there's always a waypoint icon on-screen showing you where to go or who to follow, and the amount of in-game chatter from your team is simply astounding. It isn't often in games that you'll hear your squad call out specific areas on the map and have it mean anything. When your friend shouts, "Two tangos behind the yellow station wagon!" you'll actually see two enemies behind a yellow station wagon. It's a pretty engaging experience. You'll still have random issues with friendly AI, specifically with blocking your movement or deciding to walk in front of you mid-firefight, but for the most part it's a better experience than the first Modern Warfare.
Where Modern Warfare 2's campaign drops the ball, however, is in its actual storytelling. With no historic anchor it's up to the Infinity Ward to not only put players in the moment, but also build and develop the world around those moments. That's one area where Modern Warfare 2 could have used more polish time or specific direction to get right. Events fly by, story is told only through load screens or in-game via NPC chatter (usually amidst firefights, where reading text isn't exactly priority one) and the story is so gigantically over-the-top that you'll often find yourself catching your breath after a mission, feeling like you had fun, and then trying to figure out what you just did in the context of the story. Though this may prove an issue for some, I was able to catch the plot, enjoy the characters, follow the twists, and truly care about the story. But then again, I've also been dedicated to nothing but Modern Warfare 2 for the last six months. The game often expects you to already know the characters, extrapolate on one line of dialogue or a quick cut-scene, and then figure out the story from there. In the end though, there's no real weight to anything you're doing. Outside of playing a couple missions as a soldier taking orders from the top you never get a true feel for scale, or any actual emotional attachment to the events. Something as simple as a newscast reel, or moment of downtime while on the field would have gone a long way. The end result is a game that has the feel of an '80s action movie with huge plot holes covered by plenty of epic moments, but never a believable, cohesive set of events.
There are definitely still great moments to be had in single player though. There's a laundry list of awesome gameplay concepts and new tech at your disposal. It just doesn't stack up against some of the previous Call of Duty story modes, where single player was the obvious focus throughout the entire package.
For the vast majority of the experience, Modern Warfare 2 is best enjoyed with friends or random opponents online. The core campaign may have taken a bit of a hit, but in its place is an incredibly well done debut mode called Spec Ops. For those that don't know, Special Operations mode is an arcade-inspired challenge mode that can be played single player for the most part (minus a few co-op specific challenges), but is obviously designed around two-person team play. The mode is broken up into five tiers, each with missions that have a possible three stars to gain based on difficulty level in each of the 23 missions. You'll see a lot of repeating areas, some pulled directly from the single-player campaign, but the actual objectives (and most of the time, the exact layout of the level) is all new. You won't find leaderboards for this mode, unfortunately.
SpecOps mode is going to surprise a lot of gamers. It's addictive and surprisingly entertaining. It's longer, overall, than single-player mode, is a huge upgrade from the previously unlockable Arcade Mode in the first Modern Warfare, and some of the missions will have players going back over and over again well after all 69 stars are earned. The co-op only AC-130 mission, for example, is one of the biggest highlights of the entire Modern Warfare 2 package. One player mans the gunship while the other sneaks behind enemy lines on foot. The need for co-op play here is tremendous. In a similar mission, one player will man a chopper mini-gun and actually control the bird's fly speed as it circles a stranded soldier (player two) in a suburban warzone. Not only will you need to work in tandem to move from point to point, but the mission ends with an amazingly cinematic finale as the chopper pilot destroys countless buildings, lays down waves of covering fire for his friend, and then actually swoops in to pick him up on a rooftop. You may have thought you were buying Modern Warfare 2 simply for the competitive multiplayer or single-player campaign alone, but mark my words; you will be pulled in by Spec Ops, and when it's all said and done you'll be begging for more.
And then there's the competitive multiplayer. While there's a near-endless amount that could be said about the final and largest pillar of the Modern Warfare 2 experience, it really boils down to a few key aspects. First off, the visual overhaul. Multiplayer looks beautiful this time around, with the visuals trumping that of the single-player offering in the original Modern Warfare, and much more epic locales. There's a huge level of smoke and effects to be seen, electrical equipment and cars explode, and nearly every item in the levels are physics enabled, all amounting to an experience that feels like a true extension of single player, rather than some stripped down visual offering. There was a full team dedicated to multiplayer for Modern Warfare 2 and it shows.
Infinity Ward also made a point to focus on both user feedback from the first Modern Warfare, as well as overall balance across multiplayer modes. The class system returns with a set of both new and returning weapons, perks, and the new customizable killstreaks, but despite having well over double the amount of total content this time around Modern Warfare 2 retains its strategic feel across the board. In fact, this is easily one of the most balanced multiplayer games I've ever played, as every strategy has its counter, and players at every skill level can contribute to their team in some unique way. The entire experience is extremely rewarding, and the sheer amount of content will have you coming back again and again.
In fact, the killstreaks themselves are evidence that the game's balance is truly there. Killstreaks have been expanded from the original Modern Warfare, now allowing players to unlock rewards such as stealth bombers, AC-130 strikes, EMP blasts, and even a devastating 25 killstreak nuke that ends the game with a big bang, automatically handing your team the win if you can pull it off. With such devastating power at your fingertips though, balance was crucial, and Infinity Ward pulled it off. Many of the more annoying tactics in the original Modern Warfare have been removed, so you'll no longer have players throwing three frag grenades every life, martyrdom has been removed from the main set of perks, and with plenty of airborne attacks and a wide variety of equipment and weapons camping is far less of an issue. In fact, even the multiplayer maps themselves solve many of the common issues of COD4's multiplayer, and in turn make for a better experience. You'll find more height, more alternate routes to areas, and more diversity all around. There's an insane level of depth and strategy in Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer, and this is far from just an upgrade from COD4.
For those of us looking to pick up the game on PC, a few more things need to be noted about Modern Warfare 2. Infinity Ward has worked to make sure the experience on PC is identical to that of 360 and PS3, and while I'd say the team has succeeded overall, that's so a good and bad thing for various players. On the plus side, you're getting the same amazing experience as the other versions, and those that want a game that's easy to jump into online and connect with other players will find it with the PC version of Modern Warfare 2. What that also means, however, is that the PC version is also locked to the same restrictions as the other versions, so 32 person matches are a thing of the past, you can't create dedicated servers for match hosting, and that also will result in a lack of future mod support and PC-specific expansion. While this is definitely a downside for those familiar with the expandability of PC gaming and freedom that comes with a more open source platform, IW is essentially forcing the PC version to play by the same rules as the console offerings, and thus making sure anyone that wants to jump in and get the intended Modern Warfare 2 experience can do so across any system. It'll hurt the hardcore PC community, and but it's a decision IW made.
Should Infinity Ward have included more expandability across PC – be it in more players online, dedicated servers, or through other avenues – the PC version would have been reviewed as such, and the added features would have (we can only assume) helped the version go above and beyond its console counterparts. Seeing as it's the same core experience, however, we are reviewing it as such, and the game should be looked at as the same value and overall package as any other console.
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